The women here in Laos wear many hats: anything from businesswoman to homemaker, from chef to artist. They also wear many sinhs.
This traditional skirt is as diverse as the women who wear them. The designs vary by ethnic group and by occasion — from weddings, festivals and holidays, like the upcoming Pi Mai (Lao New Year).
It’s easy to envy these colourful and masterfully woven pieces. Want to add one to your closet? Here’s more on this beautiful piece of Lao culture — with excerpts and information from the new Fibre2Fabric exhibit Woven Universes: Women’s Creativity in Cloth (see it now at Ock Pop Tok’s Living Craft Centre) by Linda S. McIntosh, PhD, the exhibition’s curator:
The sinh has a long history in Laos, and is still a definitive indicator of a Lao woman among many.
“Almost all ethnic groups of Laos wear sinh and they each have their own styles of sinh. Lao women first put on the sinh some 3,000 years ago,” according to Ms Kongdeuan Nettavong, a researcher who presented on the history of sinhs at a seminar last year, reported in the Vientiane Times.
The article continues: “Because Lao women make a special point of wearing the traditional skirt, people from every nation will know at once that a woman is Lao if she is wearing this particular garment. Wearing a sinh has become a unique symbol that sets Lao women apart from others.”
The introduction of a new market economy in Laos thirty years ago has led to an explosion of creativity in the production of handwoven textiles. Handicraft competitions have encouraged women to imagine new designs to weave into fabric. Political history, personal memories, photographs and illustrations inspire new designs and features alongside traditional patterns.
The skirt has also evolved to include more western influences, including darts, waistbands and metal fasteners.
Many weavers grow up learning the craft by making their own sinhs, thus showing off their own creativity and skillfulness.
“I love Lao skirts and have made most of mine,” says Veomanee Douangdala, Ock Pop Tok co-founder. “When I was a schoolgirl, if I wanted to look cool, I had to make my skirts look different from my friends. I think that’s how I became an artist, how I learnt to be creative. Now when I meet people from around the world, they tell me I’m an artist and that I’m keeping my culture alive. That makes me proud.”
As with most woven Lao textiles, motifs play a prominent role in each piece. Often abstract, geometric patterns symbolise flowers and other vegetation. Other motifs include real and mythical animals, like birds, elephants, monkeys and the Naak (naga) serpent deity. Rainbows are also portrayed through repeating rows of different coloured designs.
Depending on the region, techniques include:
- Continuous supplementary weft
- Discontinuous supplementary weft
- Supplementary Warp
- Weft Ikat
How to wear a sinh
Sinhs are a wrap-style skirt — traditionally worn like a sarong. Fabrics are typically sold unfinished and tailored to form a tube, with a hook and eye on one side and a latch on the other. After stepping in, you wrap the fabric to create a double layer in the front — helpful if you’re riding a motorbike or bicycle, as one does here.
The length depends on your age — with school girls wearing knee-length. The older, the longer. Older women also typically wear more muted colours. Most sinhs are either cotton or a silk blend, with the latter being for more formal occasions (weddings, bacis, etc).
At Ock Pop Tok, we pride ourselves on not only highlighting and celebrating traditional Lao textiles, but also look to provide innovations that fit our “East Meets West” mindset. We work with Village Weaver Projects like the Phou Tai and Tai Lue ethnic groups to source beautiful fabrics, including indigo ikat and geometric tapestry designs, that can be shaped into the style of your choice.
Want a modern twist? Try a pencil skirt, drawstring lace-up or wrap-around…options abound.
You can learn (and see) more on how women’s fashion in Laos has evolved in a new exhibit from Fibre2Fabric, Ock Pop Tok’s nonprofit gallery at the Living Crafts Centre.
Stop by today — and be sure to visit again in the future — traditional pieces, part of our Lao Heritage Textile Collection, will rotate quarterly, offering visitors a chance to see a wide range of colours, design format and patterning that makes them truly unique.
Woven Universes: Women’s Creativity in Cloth will be open every day from 8 am to 5 pm.
Portions of this post were excerpted from the Woven Universes exhibition, written by Linda S, McIntosh, PhD.
Dr. Linda S. McIntosh, curator of Woven Universes, received her PhD from Simon Fraser University, Canada, focusing her research on handwoven textiles of South Laos. She has curated exhibitions and written numerous publications about the textiles of Laos, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries. Dr. McIntosh is presently finishing a major publication on Indonesian jewellery and textiles. When in Luang Prabang, she can be contacted at Gallery ASIAMA.